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Legislative centennial deemed a success

3 days of programs held at downtown restaurant

Posted: March 7, 2013 - 1:11am  |  Updated: March 7, 2013 - 2:25am

Participants and attendees lauded Wednesday a three-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Legislature held earlier this week in downtown Juneau.

A series of programs were staged at Rockwell, a restaurant that occupies the former Elks Lodge, starting Sunday morning and ending Tuesday night. That building was the site of the First Alaska Territorial Legislature’s opening session in 1913.

Planning for the celebration rested heavily on the work of Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens’ legislative aides, particularly Tim Lamkin, who has been the point person on 100th anniversary events for the Alaska Legislative Centennial Commission, which Stevens chairs.

“All of my energy in the past 11 months has been focused on K-12 educational activity and how we can benefit our social studies program — Alaska history, especially,” said Lamkin, describing plans for the legislative centennial event. “About a month ago, you know, session convened, and we’re in Juneau, and local folks started approaching us. They said, ‘Well, aren’t we going to do something on the day of? You know, something to commemorate and celebrate it?’ So I reported back to the commission. … They said, ‘Well, maybe we should go ahead and do some kind of events.’”

Assisted by fellow staff members and with the blessing of the commission, Lamkin lined up former legislators to return to Juneau and speak on a range of topics, reserved Rockwell for the series of events — which included panel discussions, presentations and even a reenactment of the First Territorial Legislature, for which Lamkin put together the script — and developed a schedule and program topics.

Commission members expressed reluctance to spend much state money on the centennial, Lamkin said. So he lined up support from the Alaska Committee, a nonprofit corporation founded to promote Juneau as Alaska’s capital city, which agreed to pay for catering and flower arrangements for the welcome reception Sunday, 100 years to the day after the First Territorial Legislature convened for the first time in the Elks Lodge on March 3, 1913.

“We were invited to participate in the initial planning of the event, and we didn’t have a big role,” said Wayne Jensen, chairman of the Alaska Committee and president of Juneau architectural firm Jensen Yorba Lott Inc. “We helped them identify a few legislators that could be participants, and we offered to help sponsor the Sunday evening reception and the flowers on the table. So we helped pay for some of that.”

One of the former legislators who participated was former Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, who was a panelist for a Monday lunch discussion on “Leading Women in Alaska’s Political History.”

“Actually, it was a very nice event,” said Davis. “I was hoping that more legislators, past legislators, could have attended, but it was very nice. I was glad I was a part of it.”

According to Davis, many former legislators told her afterward that they did not know that the centennial celebration was happening.

“For some reason, they seemed to think that the word didn’t get out to a lot of the people that didn’t know about it,” said Davis.

Stevens’ staff had just one month to organize the three-day event, as Jensen noted.

“It was put together very quickly. And that’s the thing. For the time they had to put it together, they did a great job,” said Jensen, who also praised the involvement of the Legislative Affairs Agency and Rockwell staff. “Sure, if they’d had a year to do it, some things would have been changed. But they did it very quickly and I thought did an excellent job.”

Rockwell, which normally opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays, opened its doors early and served breakfast for morning programs that included Jensen giving a presentation on the Capitol’s history and former Reps. Clark Gruening, D-Anchorage, and Mike Miller, D-Juneau, talking about how Juneau has grown and changed to accommodate the state government in its role as the capital city.

Deb Barry, co-owner of Rockwell, volunteered her restaurant as the site of the events, testifying at a Legislative Centennial Commission meeting last month that it would be “awesome” to have the events at Rockwell.

Barry did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Local historian John Venables, whose presentation in character as Delegate James Wickersham on the 1912 effort to get Congress to pass the Second Organic Act and confer official territory status on Alaska opened the series of programs Sunday morning, spoke glowingly of the three-day celebration.

“I told Sen. Stevens last night that he orchestrated the greatest educational event of the century,” Venables said. “Never has there been more education packed into such a short period of time.”

Venables said he was “greatly honored” to participate. His speech as Wickersham received a standing ovation from attendees.

Davis said the response to her Monday lunch program on Alaska’s women politicians was “encouraging.”

“It was well-attended, and I thought it went very, very well,” Davis said. She added, “I’m pleased that we did celebrate the 100 years, and I’ve always been proud of the fact that they did pass women’s suffrage … but we still have some things that we have to work on.”

Each program had a designated topic, although participants did not always strictly adhere to them.

A Tuesday evening “happy hour” presented by University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Terrence Cole and former Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, started off with a primer on Wickersham, the progressive movement of the early 20th century, women’s suffrage and anti-German sentiment, all of which were factors that led to Alaska voters approving Prohibition in 1916.

But Halford drifted off the subject of Prohibition to speak at length about his time in the Legislature and his memories of former colleagues, and soon he, Cole and former legislators who attended the event were trading stories and jokes.

Lamkin, the event planner, was unfazed. He said he had told participants that they were not bound to any particular subjects.

“I didn’t want to put a lot of sidebars on this, or parameters,” Lamkin explained. “Not a lot of rules. Really, the goal was to get all of these people together in one room and see what happens. So the fact that we kind of took a tangent off from Prohibition didn’t bother me at all. I don’t think it bothered anybody, really.”

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the daughter of former House Speaker Jalmar Kerttula, D-Palmer — a contemporary of many of the former legislators who attended the centennial event — said having so many former legislators back in town was the highlight of the centennial.

“The people who came were just the right people,” said Kerttula.

But Kerttula said she did not attend any of the programs, a fact she bemoaned. She said she especially “hated to miss” the panel of women on which Davis sat Monday.

“As leader, I just was stuck,” said Kerttula. “This timing (was) just rough with the session.”

Indeed, attentions were split at the Alaska State Capitol by an address by Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska’s Democratic junior senator, and a late-night House vote Monday, and by several high-profile committee meetings Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, made it out to a few of the events, including Jensen’s presentation and the reenactment scripted by Lamkin and performed by local actors and legislative staffers.

“I thought it was grand,” Egan said. “I couldn’t believe the former legislators that were here and how open they were to talking.”

Jensen agreed.

“I went to every session and enjoyed every minute of it,” said Jensen.

The centennial celebration will continue with a three-day “academic symposium” at UAF, which starts March 21, and an event at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on March 30 commemorating the territorial lawmakers that represented Juneau and Douglas prior to statehood.

Lamkin and Legislative Affairs are also continuing work on www.100years.akleg.gov, the centennial’s website, which Lamkin said will be maintained “in perpetuity.”

The website includes a brief description of each Legislature and a roster of its members. Staff are still looking for photographs and information for certain former legislators, and Lamkin has invited the public to check the website and see if they are able to fill in any gaps.

Lamkin is also working on an “oral histories” project, interviewing former legislators, children of ex-legislators who have died and other figures from Alaska’s political landscape and history. He said those interviews will be “out this fall sometime.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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